Branding (and Re-Branding) for Authors

Public Domain, courtesy Royal Armoury, Stockholm and Wikimedia CommonsThe desirability (or even the concept) of establishing a brand may not come naturally to many authors. Branding may appear to have nothing to do with authorship, or seem to cheapen the author's craft, or represent an intimidating task to carry out - or perhaps even all of the above. But for non-fiction writers, and particularly genre authors, a brand is an important and unique tool to forge and to hone.

Simply put, your brand is what people think of when they think of you and your books. If they don’t have a clear picture of what they will get when they buy your work, they are much less likely to do so. Helping them form a clear and compelling picture of your work – and perhaps of yourself as well (if you choose to share personal details and insights with your readers) – is what branding is all about.

You’ll notice that I also referred to "re-branding" in the title to this blog entry. Why? Because most authors don’t get around to thinking about a brand until they’ve written several books, become savvy about the writing game, and gotten serious about promoting their work in a cohesive manner.

But by that time, an author has already established a brand by default through her choice of covers, blurbs and website design, as well as through interviews and other outputs. The result may be blurry, ho-hum, inconsistent and even misleading. But by definition, it’s still a brand, because it’s what people think of when they think of that author and her books.

Where this is the case, the author needs to not only establish the brand she wants, but also dislodge and replace the image that her existing readers already have of her and her books. Of course, she will want to do so in a way that increases her readers’ level of interest rather than diminishes or disappoints. In other words, she needs to think about rebranding as well as branding.

This pretty much summarizes where I am right now in my own self-taught, self-publishing journey. I started out with a ho-hum website that didn’t have a coherent focus, and a ho-hum  cover on my first book. As I got more serious about writing fiction, I also became more knowledgeable. And, since I tend to take anything I do seriously, I started setting the bar higher for my own efforts, from writing to editing, to packaging, to promoting. Not surprisingly, I also had to start thinking about what brand image I wanted to project, and come up with a plan for establishing it.

A good place to start when considering what your brand should be is by thinking about what kind of books you write, why you decided to write in that particular genre, what is in common across your titles, and most importantly, what you think is unique in your books in relation to other books, and particularly those in the same genre.

At the same time, you should be savvy about the typical expectations readers may have be in your genre, and consider tailoring the presentation of your work to meet those expectations. For example, if you’re writing in an active genre, your cover should probably include motion, and if you write spy novels, then suspense and intrigue should radiate from their covers. We all know a romance cover when we see one.

These are the elements that I think are relevant to developing a brand that would effectively represent my books:

  • I currently write in the mystery/thriller genre
  • My story lines focus on cybersecurity plots and the protagonist’s path towards foiling them
  • They involve international as well as domestic themes
  • The details arise from my professional experience and first-hand acquaintance with the types of characters and events I write about
  • The technical aspects are always scrupulously accurate, lay-person accessible, and totally conceivable. So far, much of what I included in my plot elements in each book has now actually happened
  • Social and political satire as well as humor (they are not the same thing) are integral to the reading experience
  • I strive to create characters in which readers will take an ongoing interest, rather than just foils contrived simply to move the plot along

In this post, I’ll focus on the visual elements of brand-building, and images are necessarily more effective at suggesting some of these elements over others. I’ll do so partly because most people are already familiar with the use of distinctive logos (Target, Starbucks, Apple) and stylized names (Coca-Cola, Ford, IBM), as well as with more creative branding techniques that involve strong visual elements, such as those employed by Apple in its "Think Different" and silhouette iPod ads. Most people worldwide recognize the Coca-Cola logo, and millions associate Apple products with being cool, even though they may not know why. Those ad campaigns play a larger part than you might guess in achieving that invaluable result.

Happily, authors have a lot more to work with in presenting a distinct, unifying visual brand than Ford or IBM – or even Apple. Every time an author writes a new book, she has a fresh canvas she can use to amplify her existing brand, as well as to provide a preview of what a reader can look forward to in the author’s latest work.

What do I mean by amplify an author’s existing brand? Most obviously, an author can (although she may decide not to) use the same overall template for each book – same fonts, same placement of the title and author name, same reference to the series that the book is part of, and so on. Viewed individually, a new title should tempt and say "Read me!" Viewed together with the earlier titles, either on-line or in the reader’s imagination, a new cover should say "If you liked the last book, you’ll love this one!"

If you were designing a cover for one of my books, what should the cover show, based on the list above? Some elements are better suited to development textually (e.g., through the book blurb and author website), while others are easy to work into a visual presentation. The textual elements include details about the protagonist and the underlying plot developments, while the ones with visual potential include technology, suspense, mood, and selected elements from the story line itself.

Let’s talk now about the cover of my first book. It’s called The Alexandria Project, and has a subtitle as well: A Tale of Treachery and Technology. The plot focuses on black hats that originally hack all manner of domestic networks, and then move on to far greater mayhem. I remain pretty happy with the text elements of the cover, since they combine mystery (what does "The Alexandria Project?" refer to?) with hints that relate both to the book and the brand (Treachery and Technology).

Now let’s look at the actual original cover. I was pretty satisfied with it at the time. It clearly showed that the plot was international, and (to me, at least) it had an edgy quality and an appealing simplicity. But was it working as hard as it could be to tempt people to give it a read?

I thought the answer was yes, until I finished my second book, and discovered Streetlight Graphics, a design firm that does book interiors, covers and web design (I’ve been thoroughly delighted with them, and recommend them enthusiastically). Glendon Haddix at Streetlight designed the cover for my second book, and after seeing it, I asked him to do a new one for my first book. Here’s the result.

The first cover looks pretty sterile in comparison, doesn’t it? The new cover also looks more genre-appropriate.  More specifically, the running figure suggests action and danger, and the missile gives a hint of what might be found inside. Finally, the font sizes, the black background and the shading over the word "Project" add an element of menace.

Let’s take a look now at the cover of my second book, titled The Lafayette Campaign, and subtitled A Tale of Deception and Elections. For starters, let’s  pause to notice the brand-building potential for subtitles. As you can see, I once again used an enigmatic title, followed by a stylistically similar subtitle ("A Tale of…") subtitle that includes some clear hints about where the plot will be going. You’ll notice that the subtitle of this site is "Tales of Adversego," utilizing the same brand element while wrapping the protagonist’s name in for good measure.

Here’s the short blurb for my second book, next to the cover that Glendon designed for it:

America is rushing headlong into another election, but something is wrong – preposterous candidates jump to the top of the polls while credible candidates languish (sound familiar?) Cybersecurity super sleuth Frank Adversego must find the Black Hats trying to hack the presidential election, and stop them before they do.

After seeing this cover, the one for my first book started looking like it could be improved. Moreover, there was a clear opportunity to build the visual brand by having introducing some continuity between the titles of the series.

As you can see, there are common elements between both of the Streetlight Graphics designs. Each is edgy; both use the same fonts and text color scheme; my name is at the bottom of both covers; each has a black background.

The result is that readers who view the titles will have a sense of what the books are likely to be about, both individually and as a series, and this sense will be matched by their actual experience. And each new title should reassure and draw in those that have read and enjoyed a title that came before.

In a few days, I’ll be rolling out my new website (you can read about the marketing objectives for that redesign here). When I do, you’ll see how the same themes are brought forward into that presentation in an effort to reinforce and amplify the brand that I’m trying to establish through the covers above. If perchance you find that either (or even both!) of these titles draw you in, you can find both of them at Amazon. Number one will still have the original cover for a few more days, so this will be your chance to get a collectors’ edition while supplies last!

The real explanation for Donald Trump? Find out in The Lafayette Campaign